Jurors: Girl’s age was crucial to decision in Warren Jeffs trial

ST. GEORGE — Jurors in the Warren Jeffs case said Tuesday they were convinced of the polygamist sect leader’s guilt on charges of rape as an accomplice because of two “simple facts.”

“She was 14. She didn’t have to say anything for rape to occur. Warren Jeffs was her only ticket to getting out or not getting married,” said juror Gerald Munk, 36, a maintenance worker for St. George.

The guilty verdict could send Jeffs, 51, to prison for life. Sentencing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Nov. 20 in 5th District Court.

Jeffs is the president and prophet of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, whose tenets include polygamy and a belief in arranged marriages through revelation by God to the FLDS prophet.

But religion did not play a part in the jury’s decision, jurors said during a debriefing with reporters following the verdict. Defense attorney Wally Bugden argued during his closing statement that Utah had made a political decision to charge Jeffs with rape, when it could have filed charges of performing an illegal, underage marriage.

“Religion was definitely involved, but I don’t think it (the case) was about that,” said Heather Newkirk, a 32-year-old mom and massage therapist.

The issue before the jury, Newkirk said, was the age of the victim and the jury’s strict interpretation of the law.

“Rape can be very subtle” when the victim is 14 years old, she said.

Under Utah law, a 14-year-old can consent to sex in some circumstances. But sex is not considered consensual if a person younger than 18 is enticed by someone at least three years older.

Elissa Wall, now 21 and married to a different man, testified she objected to an arranged marriage that placed her with Allen Steed, her 19-year-old cousin. Wall testified that no one in her family, including her mother and stepfather, Fred Jessop, who was second counselor in the FLDS Church presidency, would listen to her pleas to avoid the marriage.

Several weeks after the wedding, which Jeffs conducted in a Nevada motel, Wall testified that Steed forced her to have sex, leaving her feeling “dirty and used.” Wall said Jeffs, who was first counselor in the FLDS Church at the time, ignored her complaints that Steed was touching her in ways she didn’t like, admonishing her to repent and give herself “mind, body and soul” to her husband.

Steed testified tearfully that he loved his wife, tried hard to be a good husband, and had sex with Wall that was consensual. Jeffs dissolved the marriage after Steed discovered Wall was having an affair. Steed has not been charged with a crime. He testified that police never interviewed him before charging Jeffs.

Jurors said they did not fully believe Steed’s testimony, although they did wonder why he was not charged with rape if Jeffs was being tried as an accomplice to the rape.

“We talked about it, whether there was an actual rape,” said juror Ben Coulter, 26, who works in retail sales. “But it was her age. She was 14.”

Jeffs, he said, was “the only one who could have released her (Elissa Wall) from the marriage.”

Jury foreman David Finch said the jury thought Steed “contradicted himself several times on the stand” when it came to the timeline of events.

The first rape occurred between April 23, 2001, when Steed and Wall were married, and May 12, 2001, when the couple took a trip to Canada. The second count occurred sometime between May 13, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2003.

Juror Diedre Shaw, 32, a housewife and mother of four, said the group talked about whether there could be an accomplice to rape if there wasn’t a rape. Other adults in Wall’s life also did nothing to stop the marriage. Wall testified she never told anyone she was being raped.

“We talked about Allen Steed, her mother, her sisters and the fact that she (Elissa Wall) said she ‘sugared up’ to Allen eventually,” Shaw said. “But they weren’t on trial.”

Steed must have enticed Wall into sex, Shaw said, because Wall testified she consented to sex at times in order to get money or see family.

Three jurors said they were “inclined toward innocent on at least one of the counts” when they began deliberating Friday. On Monday afternoon, the jury informed Judge James Shumate they were deadlocked on one count, which prompted the judge to ask them to continue their discussions.

The jury was released for the night at 8 p.m. on Monday after telling the judge they were close to a verdict on both counts.

By Tuesday morning, a female juror was excused for an undisclosed reason. That dismissed juror, Andrea Powers Harold, told KSL-TV that a fierce argument broke out between her and another juror over what she called “misinterpreted words.” An alternate juror, Rachel Karimi, 28, a mother with young children, was seated on the jury. Shumate instructed them that they were a “new panel.” Less than three hours later, the jury returned with a guilty verdict.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 26, 2007.
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